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The National Trust awards recognising pioneering eco-campaigner Octavia Hill

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Octavia Hill was a tireless advocate for saving land and green spaces in and around Victorian London. She was also a founder of the National Trust, which is launching an award to recognise modern day ‘unsung environmental heroes’

If the public was polled to come up with a list of great Victorians certain names would be pretty much guaranteed to make it, from Charles Dickens to Florence Nightingale.

One name that is likely to barely register is Octavia Hill. Yet her life’s work and its legacy has had a profound impact over the last hundred years on the way that we live today and the values that we place on issues from the environment to housing.

She achieved many firsts during her seven decades (she died in August 1912) from setting up the first ever housing association to being an early advocate of social work.

For someone with so many fingers in different pies there was a thread that connected them all which predates the welfare state and has become topical in the current political and economic climate. It was the importance of our environment (in the broadest sense) from the need for strong communities to a sense of fair play and giving people the opportunity to improve their own lives.

One aspect of her campaigning zeal that makes her very relevant today was her recognition – years ahead of it becoming fashionable – of the importance of green spaces and the environment in terms of our health and well being.

This is captured in her own words where she talks about the fact that ‘we all need space; unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently [and we need] places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in.’

In one breath she could link the debate around slum housing in Victorian Britain to the need for access to green space. Research is increasingly showing that seeing green whether in a tower block or living in a small hamlet is good for you. It also has a direct and interesting link into the rise of the happiness movement and the search for measuring progress beyond simple economic measurements.

Octavia Hill was a tireless campaigner in the efforts to save commons and land in and around London, such as Parliament Hill. She was also one of the three founders of the National Trust. The early years of the organisation focused on acquiring places of ‘natural beauty and historic interest’ such as Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and land in the Lake District.

Inspired by the national parks movement in the US and the ideas of the great John Muir, the young National Trust was the embodiment of Octavia’s environmental thinking and today it manages 250,000 hectares of countryside and 710 miles of coastline in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Her journey and tireless efforts to show the value of the outdoors, whether the fells of the Lakes or our local parks, helped lay the foundations for a century of change in the countryside. The post second world war settlement enshrined in law the importance of our green spaces with the creation of the national parks and the countryside rights of way Act established the ‘right to roam’.

Yet there are still very real pressures on the places we treasure – spectacular forests or a patch of green on the edge of a town – today.

The public reaction to the Government’s proposed sell-off of Forestry Commission land in England in early 2011 and the national debate about changes to the planning and its possible impact on our green places show that Octavia’s vision is both topical and relevant a century after she died.

It’s the rich legacy of Octavia Hill combined with our national passion for the natural world that has led to the setting up of the Octavia Hill Awards.

These awards are about the army of unsung environmental heroes across the land that care deeply about their local green places and have helped to enrich the lives of local communities.

Whether it’s someone that has led efforts to prevent an allotment site being sold off for development or a group that has set up a community woodland or orchard they have made a difference, sometimes against the odds and through sheer hard work.

Without this dedication, commitment and rolling up of sleeves our towns, cities and countryside would lack the richness of these special places. It’s the self help ethos that Octavia embraced which has led to people coming together to create community growing spaces or running local nature reserves.

The awards also want to recognise the role that individuals have played in inspiring other people and the next generation to care for the natural world.

If Octavia Hill was alive today she would be at the forefront of the battle to get the natural environment and its values and importance on to the political agenda.

Find out more about the Octavia Hill Awards and nominate people for one of six categories. The closing date for nominations is 16 January 2012

Mike Collins is a senior National Trust press officer

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The National Trust awards recognising pioneering eco-campaigner Octavia Hill